7th of December: A Penny For My Thoughts

07 Tevis-PennyForMyThoughts

Remembering other people’s lives

Author/Designer: Paul Tevis

From: The Bundle of Holding +2

Today I’m bringing you a game from the very first bundle I got from Bundle of Holding: The Bundle of Holding +2. I think Monsterhearts was what persuaded me to get that bundle, but that’s not the game I want to talk about today. Instead, I’ve taken a look at A Penny For My Thoughts, a game I remember Oliver talking about back when we were playing Indie games together when we lived in Aarhus. I’ve never played it, though, which is why I decided to read through it for today. The game is a product of the Game Chef competition, an annual design challenge, where participants are asked to design a game based on a number of ingredients, in this case “memory”, “drug”, and “currency”.

A Penny For My Thoughts is a game about memory and personal stories. In the game, you play a group of amnesiac patients who have been administered a dose of a drug that allows you to see each other’s memories. The idea is that the others are free of the emotional trauma that caused the amnesia, and as such can get into the memories that the person are shutting out.

In the game, you write a number of “Memory Triggers” – brief phrases that will spark a memory. Everybody writes a number of triggers and put them all in a hat, a tin or something similar. Then, on your turn, you draw a trigger and read it out loud. You will then ask each of the other players in turn to ask you a “guiding question” – a yes or no question about the memory, to which you must answer, “Yes, and”, and then elaborate on the answer.

When you are done asking questions, you will narrate the memory. There’s a catch, though: you are free to narrate other characters and the world around you, but whenever you take considerable action yourself, you must ask two other players: “What did I do or say then?” Each of them will give you an option for what you did, and you must choose one of them, giving that player a penny from a little stash in front of you. When you are out of pennies, the memory is finished, you wrap it up, and take one penny from a central stash.

Then the player with the most pennies (sort of – there’s a more complicated rule I won’t explain here) takes the next turn. This continues until each player has done three memories. At that point, the game is over, and each player will decide whether to retain their pennies – and their memories – or give back the pennies, going back into amnesia.

Most of the book is written from the point of view of the doctor administering the drug, explaining to the patients how to carry out the procedure they are about to undergo. The game text is designed to be read out loud while playing, such that you can pick up the book and play with very little preparation. The last chapter of the book is written from the author’s point of view, giving some advice and explaining the inspiration and design process of the game.

The game is intended to be played in a realistic, present-day setting, and in the appendices, there is a “Facts & Reassurances” sheet to that effect. “Facts & Reassurances” is the game’s way to coordinate expectations about setting and tone, to avoid clashing visions causing a problem for the players. The game does provide other versions of “Facts & Reassurances”, allowing for instance a Bourne Identity style secret agent game, or a game of Lovecraftian investigators in an asylum.

My impression: First off, I want to mention the tone and layout of the game. It is designed to look like a case folder, and the tone of the doctor comes through quite strongly. On one hand, this is a bit silly. On the other hand, it sets the mood for the game, and I think it will help ease the players into the game very nicely.

The game itself is clearly heavily inspired by improvisational theatre (something Tevis himself acknowledges). I’ve done some improv myself, and I recognise many of the moves that the game uses. Drawing cues from a hat and getting heavy prompting from others are both ways that improv helps participants get into the scenes. This seems like a very good way of doing a game like this, as it effectively stops the players from planning, and instead gets them into the flow of the story. The storyteller knows as little as the other players about where the story is headed.

On the other hand, this may also be a turn-off for many players who like more control. And while I think it might be good for them to learn how to relinquish control and go with the flow, a game that rotates so heavily on that mechanic needs players who can accept that premise for the game.

All said, I like a lot of things in this game. It would seem the game has some very sound mechanics that give good support to storytelling, and teaches some good habits that could be good to have in other games.

I’ll be honest, though. While I like the game, and would be perfectly happy to play it, it doesn’t really get my blood flowing. I think part of that is not having experienced the game in full flow. But part of it is also the way the game seems a little like an exercise, and not quite as much as a game. I’d have to try it to really pass judgement on it.

How would I use this: I would love to give this game a try, just to see how it works. I would prefer to do it with some players I know to be good storytellers, though, as I’d be worried the game would drag with players who are not comfortable with this way of storytelling.

On the other hand, I could also see myself using this game as part of a storytelling or writing workshop. The game aims at fining the emotional content of a scene and making problems for a character, and could be a good exercise in writing potent scenes. Also, you could definitely use the game as the basis for a short story, or even for a novel.

5th of December: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

5 Solis-Do

Let’s get in trouble with the flying pilgrims!

Author/Designer: Daniel Solis

From: Bundle of Holding +4

Today I bring you a storytelling/writing game from Daniel Solis, who also designed the cute writing game Happy Birthday Robot (which we converted into Happy Birthday Zombie by mashing it together with Zombie Dice). Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a slightly more advanced game, but similar in many ways.

In this game, you play Pilgrims – teenagers sent out from the Flying Temple in the middle of this universe to solve problem and grow up on the way. (This is actually somewhat similar to Vincent D. Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, though the similarities more or less stop there). The world of the game is heavily inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, with loads of little planets, each with their own community to encounter and interact with. The Pilgrims can fly from planet to planet, and will encounter a situation to solve on each planet they visit.

Generating characters in Do is simple: just make a name for your Pilgrim. A Pilgrim’s name consists of three part: First, the title “Pilgrim”, then a Banner, and finally an Avatar. The Banner is an adjective or descriptor, and indicates the way the Pilgrim gets into trouble, while the Avatar is a noun that indicates the way the Pilgrim helps people. So Pilgrim Green Tree gets in trouble by being inexperienced, while she helps people by nurturing and growing things. At the end of each session, either the Banner or the Avatar will change to reflect what has happened to the Pilgrim during the session – and when the character is ultimately retired, she will have undergone many changes, and be a more grown up character than when she started.

Once you have your characters, you need a world with problems for he pilgrims to solve. To this end, the game comes with a number of letters, written by people desperate for help by the Pilgrims. The letter will describe the situation the writer finds him or herself in. Besides that, there are 20 Goal Words that the Pilgrims will be trying to get through, and some round icons, indicating what kind of issues the letter is likely to involve.

While playing, the players will take turns being the Storyteller, the other players serving as Troublemakers. The storyteller will draw three stones from a bag of white and black stones – 20 of each. Then, he will select to keep either the black or the white stones, and put the others back in the bag. Depending on how many stones he kept, the Storyteller will write a sentence about helping the locals, getting into trouble, or getting back out of trouble. Maybe the Troublemakers add a sentence to the story, and either the Storyteller or the Troublemakers may get to cross a Goal Word off the list.

You continue taking turn as Storyteller until someone has eight stones, at which point you end the session. If you managed to cross off all the Goal Words, you get sent off with a parade – otherwise, you get chased away with pitchforks. Then you do a brief epilogue and change your Pilgrims’ names.

The book is beautifully decorated, with a nice parchment look and loads of pretty and evocative drawings. The letters in particular are presented very nicely, in a way that is not only inviting, but also helps set the scene for the particular world the Pilgrims are visiting today.

My impression: I am quite charmed by this book. The setting is nice and very inviting, and it seems to invite some lovely storytelling about the Pilgrims. There are a fair number of moving parts, but I think it will be easy to keep it going, even with relatively young players.

Speaking of, the game itself states that it is designed for players of age 12 and up. On one hand, I think the story of the Pilgrims would appeal to slightly younger kids. On the other hand, writing out the story of the Pilgrims in a good way, while accepting the bad things that will invariably happen to your Pilgrim, requires a relatively mature player.

The game comes with a lot of advice for the players. This is a good thing, in that it can help inexperienced players get into the game. On the other hand, I think the game requires an adult to communicate the advice to younger players, and help them understand the advice.

My main concern with the game is whether it will feel rewarding in the end. Writing down sentences takes a fair while, and I’m a bit worried that it will drag down the game and make it feel slow. Particularly as you’ll only do one sentence whenever it is your turn. This means that the game will probably last 3-5 rounds, amounting to somewhere between nine and 25 turns. Granted, nine is quite unlikely, but it is certainly possible, and would hardly be enough for a satisfying game. Of course, players can willingly extend the game by taking the lesser number of stones, which may be needed to get the parades ending.

This is of course purely speculation. It is a bit difficult for me to predict how the game will feel when you play it. As it stands, the game is a compelling invitation to a fun session of storytelling. And the book itself is a beautiful and very inviting piece that makes me feel welcome and in good hands. As such, I could definitely see myself recommending this to teachers and parents, even those without storytelling, writing or roleplaying experience, to use with their kids.

How would I use this: I would love to do a session or two of this. I doubt I’d want to do repeated plays of this with the same group of adult players, but if I ever go back to teaching creative writing for adolescents or young adults, I might very well consider bringing this along. I am also considering taking it along to play with some of my family over Christmas – this game could certainly appeal to people without any roleplaying experience at all.